MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. – Don’t expect any huge moves from the Seattle Sounders this winter.
With Nelson Valdez now back in his native Paraguay, the MLS Cup champions have one Designated Player spot available. Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey doesn’t expect to use it this winter, however, telling MLSsoccer.com on Monday that the club plans on waiting until they know more about Clint Dempsey’s health status before adding a third DP.
Dempsey, 33, was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in late August and missed the final 16 games of the Sounders’ season, including playoffs, due to the ailment. One of two DPs on Seattle’s roster, the US international attacker had eight goals and two assists in 17 regular season games last year.
“We’ve got to be cautious in terms of DP expenditures,” Lagerwey said. “We have to, I would say, be strategic with respect to Dempsey. We’re not going to know with certainty for a while yet. We’re going to be absolutely safe and cautious with Clint until we determine what his status is and what it’s going to be long term. It’s just difficult to try to make moves because it’s hard to anticipate.”
Dempsey, who has been cleared for training since before MLS Cup on Dec. 10, is progressing well this winter. He’s been working out regularly at Seattle’s training facility, practicing lightly with several Sounders teammates who happened to stay in the Seattle area over the winter.
Lagerwey said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about Dempsey returning in time for the start of the season, but said Seattle – who are collecting data on “every movement” Dempsey makes during workouts – don’t have an exact timetable for his return because they can’t accurately predict how he’ll respond as his training regimen becomes more intense.
With a third DP off the table until Dempsey’s situation is clarified, the Sounders are focusing this offseason on getting younger and more athletic. Ten of the 14 players used by head coach Brian Schmetzer at MLS Cup were 30 or older; only two of Toronto’s 14 were in that category.
Seattle chose to jettison a few of their older players this offseason, declining the options on Valdez, defender Tyrone Mears and midfielders Erik Friberg and Andreas Ivanschitz while trading for striker Will Bruin, 27, and midfielder Harry Shipp, 25. Lagerwey expects both Bruin and Shipp to play important roles for the Sounders in 2017, with Bruin set to start at center forward if Dempsey isn’t ready for the beginning of the season and Shipp slated to compete with Alvaro Fernandez for minutes in the middle of Seattle’s 4-2-3-1 formation.
“We’re going to continue with our project of trying to make the team younger,” Lagerwey said. “I think Shipp and Bruin (pictured, above) are consistent with that. Obviously they’re not young players, they’re experienced players, but we had to have a greater number of players under 30 in our organization. We’ve let go I think five or six players over 30 from the team that was in the final and we felt that we really maximized the potential of that group. We had a lot of guys that had played as well as they possibly could’ve and we feel like we need to continue to build our team in that sense.”
Mostly, Lagerwey and the Sounders are looking for a little continuity after a wild 2016 that saw them lose Obafemi Martins to China in preseason, get off to the worst start in club history and fire longtime head coach Sigi Schmid in July before manager Brian Schmetzer and summertime arrival Nicolas Lodeiro led a massive turnaround that culminated in MLS Cup.
The end result was nice, but Lagerwey wants the Sounders to make things a bit easier on themselves in 2017. Even without a big offseason addition, he thinks they’re on the road to achieving that.
“It was a tumultuous year. And I think one that certainly all’s well that ends well, but the process was not the best. And so, look, we’re hoping for a smoother year. We’re hoping for a better start, we’re hoping for avoiding 10-game stretches where we win two games or fewer – which we had not just in 2016 but in 2015, as well – and we believe we have some more systems in place now and some more consistency in player roles and in player preparation to avoid those really serious downturns when we miss a player.
“It still depends on all the things, player health and consistency and all that stuff, but we feel like we’ve made the group younger, a little more mobile. ... The theme is avoiding wild inconsistency, try to be more consistent, have a more varied ability to be dangerous and score goals.”